Lily Munir asks the 50 young mothers in her classroom to use
their imaginations. What would it be like, she says, if your husband
supported your right to work and helped with housework?
The women in their seats look surprised at the question. Some of
What begins as jokes about bad husbands grows into a serious
discussion about gender roles and women's rights. Islam supports
women's empowerment, Ms. Munir tells her students, so men should,
It's a simple but important way Munir, who since 2002 has run the
Center for Pesantren and Democracy Studies in Jakarta, is
challenging traditional views on gender in Indonesia, the world's
largest Muslim country.
In so doing, she is reclaiming what she sees as the Koran's
intended but lost message.
Where many in the West see a book of intolerance, Munir sees a
text whose basic demand is harmony among all faiths. Where radical
Islamists see a call to arms, she sees a blueprint for peace.
And instead of looking at Koranic verses that justify gender
disparities, Munir sees a mandate for all men to work for the
empowerment of women.
To put her ideas into practice, she opened a training center in
2002 to reach out to traditional religious boarding schools called
pesantren. There are as many as 18,000 such schools throughout
Indonesia, instructing up to 3 million students, according to one
estimate. That's a fraction of Indonesia's education system, which
also includes 40,000 religious schools called madrassahs. But
pesantrens play a significant role in preparing Indonesia's future
They have also sometimes been seen as incubators of violence.
Several men charged in the 2002 Bali bombings, in which members of
the militant organization Jemaah Islamiyah killed more than 200
people, had worked at a pesantren in East Java.
A suicide bomber who later struck the JW Marriott Hotel in
Jakarta was also said to be a student of a pesantren. As a result,
the schools - and religious education through Indonesia - have been
viewed with greater alarm.
"Unfortunately, if you Google 'pesantren,' the definition you
come up with is a place that teaches terrorists in Indonesia," says
Ron Lukens-Bull, an assistant professor of anthropology at the
University of North Florida in Jacksonville, who has written
extensively about pesantrens.
But he disagrees with that negative characterization. "There are
maybe 100 to 150 pesantrens that are Islamist radical leaning.
That's not very many," he says, adding that "the pesantrens have
always been very open and culturally accommodating."
Munir also sees radical pesantrens as the exception that must be
Having been raised herself in a pesantren in Jombang, East Java,
which her parents founded in the 1950s, Munir knew firsthand that
there is much to respect about their traditions.
"[My parents] were very progressive, and very gender-sensitive,"
she says. "My mother was the first woman judge in Indonesia. …